BILLINGS — New restrictions on capacity at Yellowstone County bars, restaurants and casinos is expected to be announced by the health department Monday, along with other restrictions on group gatherings places of worship.
On Thursday, Yellowstone County Health Officer John Felton brought an update to a Billings Chamber of Commerce virtual meeting. On Monday, Felton announced capacity at county restaurants, bars and casinos would be reduced to 25 percent if the COVID-19 situation didn't improve.
At the meeting, Felton explained how conversations with restaurant owners convinced him to walk back capacity to 50 percent.
"In working with our local restaurants, it’s become clear even in the short-term (25 percent capacity) is not a sustainable level. Please understand, nobody wants our businesses to go our of business. Nobody wants to put these restrictions in, but if we can’t slow the spread of disease then our entire community is at extreme risk," Felton said.
On Friday, the county reached 598 new COVID-19 cases in a single week, exceeding the 565 per week mark Felton set that would trigger a new health officer order. Felton said new restrictions are meant to slow down the congregation of people, the primary way COVID-19 is spread.
Felton will announce new restrictions at a RiverStone Health press conference at 2 p.m. on Monday. If the Chamber meeting, he said bar, restaurant and casino capacity would be reduced along with more restrictions.
Felton said public or private group gatherings will be limited to a size of 25 people with masking and physical distancing required. Places of worship will be reduced to 25 percent capacity unless the congregation is less than 45 people, Felton said.
Exceptions to the group limits will be included for cafeterias in places like college campuses and nursing homes. Child care facilities will also be exempt, Felton said.
In a Facebook post, the Billings Chamber of Commerce wrote that Felton confirmed businesses would some time between when the restrictions are announced and when they're implemented to make changes to operations.
“We appreciate the fact that you (Felton) are willing to listen to the community, listen to the business industry and make the adjustments needed while not sacrificing the end goal: making sure we reduce the spread,” said John Brewer, Billings Chamber of Commerce CEO.
The restrictions put in place have a goal to ease the burden COVID-19 has placed on the Billings hospitals. Billings Clinic CEO Dr. Scott. Ellner told the Chamber that staff are burnt out and the hospital is ordering 60 traveling staff members from outside the region to give the local staff a break.
On Thursday, Billings Clinic had 37 COVID-19 patients, nine of whom were on ventilators and 10 more waiting on test results to see whether or not they should be admitted, Ellner said.
“It’s putting a tremendous strain on the health care system. While we remain open and we are making adjustments, our health care workers are tired, they’re fatigued. These patients are sicker than we typically see patients coming in. Many times they stay in the hospital for weeks at a time and some of them don’t leave the hospital. It’s been very, very challenging for our staff, so much so that people are talking about giving up their careers in health care," Ellner said.
COVID-19 patients are being kept in the hospital instead of transferred to rehab or specialized nursing facilities because those places would have to shut down for two weeks if a COVID-19 patient was admitted, Ellner said. That creates higher demand in the hospital itself.
“We have an incredible through-put issue where we’re taking patients,we’re building, building, building. It’s like a pot with the pressure and it’s building to a point where it’s really taxing our people," Ellner said.
Ellner encouraged the community to keep up with masks, hand washing and physical distancing to curb the virus's spread in the county.
“There’s got to be a behavior change in the community … I hope they’ll listen. I think until you’ve had a family member or friend or yourself go through this, you don’t realize how bad it really is," Ellner said.
To close his comments, Ellner said the Billings Clinic has ordered refrigerator trucks to store the bodies of people who've died in the community.
“I want to leave a sobering image in your mind. Today we have called one of the companies that provides reefer trucks. If you don’t know what that means, it’s the refrigeration trucks where we put bodies," Ellner said.